Bartholomew Eddings was sure the young stable boy was the exiled Prince. In the past a guard in the King's Court, he commits to the training and keeping of the young royal.
Shin, the stable boy, is actually a girl wearing a mirror charm. She is the caretaker of the Widow Maye and of the border inn's stable. When a troop of the current King's guard commandeers the inn, the Widow makes a fateful choice.
Torrents of warm summer rain sluice over the inn's roof, over its eaves and past my bench to turn the ground to deep muck. Muck that would suck my booties into oblivion, if I were wearing any. Leather is expensive. Booties are protection for travel and for keeping horse hooves from splitting my toes. They are not for hiding in my chimney-corner so that I can hear the bard sing for his supper, in peace, away from the gabbing innkeeper or nosy patrons.
I scooted deeper into the chimney's corner, less to feel its heat, more to pull my bare feet out of the rain. The warm stone offset the rain-cooled wind. The bard was singing of kings and tourneys and fair maidens weeping. I closed my eyes to picture the adventure he worded. I clearly saw armor flashing and heard the lances crack in the dark of my mind's eye. I lived a full week's festival before a strange sound opened my sight again.
There was nothing in view, yet a series of loud splashing and deep sucking noises pointed otherwise. The rhythm stopped. Moments later a loud, deep snort followed. My breathing started again when I recognized that sound. A horse snorting, probably blowing out the rain from its nose. The chimney was across the building from the inn's public door. I must run 'round the inn, greet the traveler, then stable the horse. I would be soaked as much as the animal's rider before it and I reached the barn. Leaning my head back against the stone, I sighed. Best leave now before....
"Shin!" Too late. I could hear the innkeeper shouting. "Shin! Horse!"
A torrent slid down my back, under my tunic, as I scurried 'round to take the horse's reins.
A huge, black horse stood foursquare in front of the inn. Steam rising from its hot frame to wisp up around the rider who seemed dressed in black as well. I wonder if it was a true black they were or just black from the pouring rain. The Black picked up a forehoof, bigger than the cook's platters, then sprayed muck over me with a stomp.
"Which way, boy? Which way to the stable?" it's rider asked.
I spit out gritty mud and pointed around the corner. "In the back, m'lord, " I shouted back.
Firelight sprang out upon the figures, pulling metal glints from armor when the innkeeper opened the door to greet a hopefully paying guest. "Let the boy take the horse and come in out of the storm, sir. We have ale and boar for supping tonight."
"I will see to my horse first, keeper. But serve me some of each when I return." With a leg tap, the rider urged his horse around the corner. I sloshed quickly after.
The building is more barn than stable. On the far side stood pig pens and a cow byre, barely visible in the storm's gray light. The near side was a bench for tacking and four stalls. Not much, but then the inn was a small one, on the border between King Rondel's land and that of the mountain tribes. Inside the barn was dry though and sweet smelling hay already in the stalls. Maye's gray mare was nearly done with her hay mound and her water bucket.
"Which stall do you wish to stable in, m'lord?" I asked grabbing another bucket to refill the gray's water with and the Black's.
"Nearest the door." He answered.
Nodding my head, I reached the bucket outside to catch the rain falling from the roof. No need to drench myself again, walking out to the pump and trough. I heard a chuckle behind me, then the jingle of mail as the rider dismounted. I lugged the full rain bucket to the first stall and poured. Then back out to the roof water. I turned to watch the rider unbuckle and pull gear and saddle from his mount. The Black was wet under the saddle as well. Dirty water dripped from the padding rug dumped on the bench. They must have been traveling in the weather a long way.
I poured water into the first stall's bucket, filling it. Refill with rain. Filled the gray's water bucket. Checked the byre's supply and the pig pens. They were well. Putting the empty bucket down, I noticed the rider pulling wet clothing from his saddlebags. If they are this wet, cold chills may follow if they do not dry off soon.
"I have some dry cloth in the loft for drying your horse if needed, sir." I offered. "Galo, the innkeeper, will seat you near the fire to dry you off."
He stood still, looking at the wet cloth and gear in his hands, dripping steadily. Dropping them to the bench, he muttered, "Get the cloth."
I climbed up the stair slats, into the loft. In one corner lay a pile of cloth rags and old blankets. I kept the inn's cast-offs to use again. Sometimes in the summer, I slept on the pile, letting the animals and insects lull me to sleep. Bundling some rags into a blanket too worn to patch again, I held the bundle against my body while slowly descending the slats. Reaching the ground safely, I dropped the bundle.
Grabbing some ragging, I approached the black horse. It was tethered to a ring nailed into a support post. It's coat still steaming, mud covered its legs. Picking up the watering bucket, I filled it one more time with rain. I used it to wash the mud from it's legs. Nothing but black hairs all the way down. Very little feathering above it's huge hooves. Definitely platter size. Stepping back, I was glad it's rider had stayed to help dry him off. I could not reach over his back from the ground.
The Black stretched his neck, mouth reaching for the hay out of reach in the stall. His rider laughed, then thumped the horse's rump with his handful of rags. He held them out for me to take. "Here. Fai thanks you, even if he does not show it."
I took them smiling, placing them and my dirty rags into the bucket. Putting them under the roof fall should pound them clean again before the storm subsides. I will wring and hang them to dry in the morning. He untethered Fai as I picked up the last of the clean cloth. I headed for the bench to start drying the saddle and gear. "Shall I dry the saddle first, my lord?"
"No!" he shouted back, startling myself and all of the animals. Fai forgot the sweet hay and dragged his rider backwards a few feet. Realizing it was his master's voice and not a predator's squall, the Black settled and snuffed his rider's hand.
"Apologies, lord," I said. "I meant no harm. The leather will mold in this weather if not dried...."
"Stop this lord nonsense," he commanded, leading Fai into the stall. Unbuckling the halter, the rider moved out of the stall and closed it's door. The Black immediately filled it's mouth with hay.